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NATIONAL REPORT — Whether it’s violent crime, robberies, shoplifting or employee theft, convenience stores have been dealing with store security issues for years. New technology is allowing operators to amp up prevention and react faster to incidents, but in many cases — in c-stores and the entire retail industry — the situation continues to worsen.
“I’ve been involved in the convenience store industry for 40-plus years and the risk of loss has not changed. The most worrisome is robbery, and as c-stores evolved into 24 hours, the violence level increased,” Chris McGoey of McGoey Security Consulting told Convenience Store News.
Robberies are up all-around, specifically in convenience stores, as the latest released FBI statistics show robbery up 16.8 percent in c-stores/gas stations from 2014 to 2015. Rosemary Erickson, researcher, forensic sociologist and president of Athena Research Corp., based in Sioux Falls, S.D., says this is the largest increase she can remember in all the years she has been studying crime. Erickson has helped NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, develop many of its security resources.
“The word to the industry is double-down on your security measures because robberies are increasing,” she told Convenience Store News.
Additionally, in 2015, industry shrinkage across all retail averaged 1.38 percent of sales, or $45.2 billion. This was up by $1.2 billion from 2014, according to the 2016 Retail Security Survey by the National Retail Federation. Of those retailers surveyed, 47 percent reported increases in overall inventory shrink, with shoplifting accounting for the greatest amount (39 percent).
“Loss by employee theft and shoplifting are still [at] the top of the list when it comes to profit loss,” McGoey explained. “Even though armed robbery and violence gets more attention, the dollar loss from that activity is relatively low.”
In the c-store industry, in-store shrink was up by 2.2 percent to $20, 270 per store in 2015, with the largest amount attributed to foodservice ($8,759), and $5,080 attributed to cigarettes, according to the 2016 Convenience Store News Industry Report.
Although shoplifting is reported as the highest, internal theft is responsible for the majority of profit loss, followed by shoplifting, according to McGoey. He attributes these losses to a lack of control, organization and a security plan, and said those who believe their highest profit loss comes from shoplifting may not be paying close enough attention to their employees.
“You show me the store that complains about shoplifting, and they probably have a higher internal theft problem they are blaming on shoplifting,” he said.
While profit loss from internal and external shrink is top-of-mind for convenience store retailers, robbery and violence continue to be an issue, especially with the recent FBI statistics showing these incidents increasing.
“We made really great strides in reducing robbery, but that was in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s,” Erickson noted. “As we moved back toward dealers for Big Oil and franchisees for corporate companies, we started moving more into the mom-and-pop operation and they don’t want to spend money on technology to address many of these problems.”
While most operators put in cameras to deter internal theft, there are other benefits of cameras in deterring other types of crime. For this reason, cameras should also be placed outside, covering the parking lot along with the gas pumps, she explained. And both the front and the back of the store should be monitored.
“Surveillance cameras are critical, not because they will necessarily prevent a robbery — although there will be some deterrent — but it also helps in identifying people for arrests and convictions,” said Erickson.
The cameras available today are significant upgrades from what the industry used in the past, providing higher resolution and crisper images. At least 720p or HD cameras are the minimum of what most chains are using. Cameras today are also much more cost-effective to implement than in the past, according to Hedgie Bartol, retail business development manager for Axis Communications, a manufacturer of security and surveillance cameras.
“In the old days, news stories would ask if people could identify someone based on a surveillance image and you couldn’t even tell it was a human being. Now, you can get actionable images,” Bartol said. “There are even intelligent devices so I could have a camera in the carport of my home and put a rule that between 10 p.m. and 7 p.m. if there is motion detected, a white light will go on and announce people are trespassing, and then send me six to eight images."
This could apply in a c-store, too, for activity at the back door, cooler, the pump and more during off-hours, he noted. Also, for employee protection, many companies use a panic button. But with point-of-sale (POS) integration, employees can now hit a button on the POS to alert the alarm company to look at the cameras and possibly call the police, according to Bartol.
Still, c-store companies struggle to find a way to stop robberies and violence before they occur, and a big issue is many robbers wear masks to conceal their identities.
“There are over 100 armed robberies in the country weekly right now and the lion’s share of those are guys with masks on,” explained Joseph Spiess, senior partner at Blue Line Technology, based in Fenton, Mo., which offers facial recognition video surveillance.
PERMISSION TO ENTER
At Riverview Moto Mart, owned by FKG Oil Co. based in Belleville, Ill., robberies occurred several times in a matter of months. The chain approached the individual store manager with a solution that might help, especially since many of the robberies included masked men.
“We had gentlemen with masks coming in and robbing the store, and after several incidents the home office started looking at avenues to help the situation,” said Chad Leemon, store manager at the location. “They showed me a packet of information from Blue Line Technology about its First Line surveillance products that require facial recognition in order for customers to enter the store, and after several issues here we decided we wanted to move forward.”
At the entrance to the store, there is a sign telling customers they must look up at the camera to gain entry into the store — which the location activates in the evening hours from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. There is also a large LED light that changes from red to green once the facial recognition occurs and that is when the door unlocks.
If someone tries to enter wearing a mask, they are denied entry by the camera. There is also a monitor by the POS so employees can view who is approaching the store, and can flip a kill switch so the doors won’t open, if necessary, according to Lindsey Silva, application engineer at Blue Line Technology.
“We lock our other entrance as soon as it gets dark to funnel everyone through the one door, and the camera looks for 350 points on the face before it will unlock the door,” Leemon explained.
The new system went into place this past August and the store has not had any robbery incidents since implementing it. Also, the fact that customers know they must show their face to a camera before entering has deterred crime, according to Leemon.
“We see people coming up to the door and then shaking their head and walking away,” he noted. “We also have flagged one person who we caught stealing on camera so he can’t get in the store at all during those hours. We love the capability of locking out the individuals who make it challenging to run a business.”
Employees feel safer with the technology, as well. Those who were afraid to work nightshifts are now volunteering. Based on the initial results, FKG Oil is looking into rolling out the technology to other Moto Mart locations, said Leemon.
INTERNAL THEFT CONTROL
With the integration of cameras and the POS, retailers are finding they have more control over employee theft than in the past. With exception-based reporting, managers can flag sweet hearting, under ringing, over ringing, voided transactions, and more. They can even make sure employees are asking for IDs when it comes to age-restricted products,
“The loss from robbery is not that big of a number — usually under $100 because chains are trained to keep the cash count down — so internal theft is having the biggest impact on the bottom line,” said Erickson. “With improved POS innovation, a store operator can monitor employees from home in real time and when exceptions come through.”
Spending the money to have the technology in place, though, is only half the battle. Operators need to be monitoring it and using it, while letting employees know they are actually being watched, McGoey emphasized. Those who think employees will be deterred by a camera are mistaken because employees will figure out if they are truly being monitored or not.
“Employees can find out quickly if the video footage is working and if anyone is really watching or doing periodic audits, and they will take advantage of that,” he said.
It starts with putting together a loss prevention plan, and hiring and training employees on detailed shift procedures. Then, monitor employees via the video surveillance to make sure they are following them, McGoey outlined. Those who stop following the procedures are the ones who need to be watched closely. But it’s also important to call out things seen on video to let employees know they are being watched.
“Operators need to be checking the POS reports for trends, patterns and exceptions, and they need to question employees about things to let them know they are being monitored,” he said. “They could even make it a training exercise on how to bag better or the frequency of dropping money.”
Crime and security are usually site-specific issues, and there needs to be a plan for each location in a chain. However, there are a number of measures and considerations that are universal when it comes to protecting a store, its employees and its customers.
Having fencing around a property and limiting the number of exits from both the store and the parking lot can be helpful in reducing crime, especially in the late-night hours, Erickson said, adding that bright lighting in the parking lot and all around the sides of a store is essential.
“It’s also important to keep the windows clear and increase the visibility for employees. There are still so many infractions on that security rule,” she noted. “You want a clear line of site for police that drive by or potential witnesses to be able to see in, and for the robber or criminal to feel like he or she is fully visible when standing there.”
Many stores fill the windows with merchandise and signage, or display racks and coolers, and it affects security in a negative way. McGoey believes there are four ways of attacking security issues in a store. These include:
- The design of the store;
- Where it’s located and how it faces the street;
- The visibility it has; and
- The hardware and equipment, such as video cameras, alarms and more.
Some of these are more controllable than others, he acknowledged.
“Don’t build a store in a bad neighborhood,” he said. “Sometimes, marketing and real estate will make a selection based on high traffic rather than looking at the fact that it’s a high crime area. There are also ways to design a store for safety, such as where the counter is located and what visibility is offered."
In cases of new construction, c-store operators can add lighting, video cameras, a door announcer and more. For those with a store already in place, it’s important to know the neighborhood and have a plan in place.
“Where the store is located will determine what the traffic is, so if you are next to a bar or nightclub, you will get intoxicated people and have more violence, beer theft and beer runs. In this case, you have to hire people to work that shift who are capable of dealing with that, and this is all part of the planning,” McGoey said.
Training employees is key, and when it comes to robberies, making sure employees are doing cash drops into a safe makes a big difference. Employees should be trained to drop every $20 bill immediately and in front of the customer. People who rob a store often come in to see how it is run before robbing it. When they see that they won’t get any money because employees are getting rid of large bills, they will go to the store down the street instead.
“NACS has a lot of training materials available for safety and security, and so many of these things don’t cost any money,” Erickson pointed out. “Keeping visibility and the windows clear doesn’t cost any money, although it’s often an argument between marketing and security, or vendors and security. But the priority has to stay high for safety — not just for customers, but also for the employees.”